Dealing with the strain: how we coped with COVID

A new report has revealed the devastating impact a year of lockdown has had on the mental health of those running business. According to a study by Harper James Solicitors the strain of the past 12 months has led to one counselling platform recording an 84% rise in demand.

Healingclouds, which specialises in treating work-related stress, has seen their total number of active clients growing from 1,900 to 3,500 clients in the space of a year. Tesco, HSBC and Crowdcube are now among the firms providing employees with access to Healingclouds services.

In their report, Harper James Solicitors, which specialises in supporting growing businesses from startup to scaleup, a series founders of high profile founders include Deliveroo investor Rob Kniaz and Apprentice winner Leah Totton reveal how the past 12 months have impacted them.

Commenting on the report, Toby Harper, 35, the CEO of Harper James Solicitors, said: “I don’t think anybody, initially, realised the impact of what the Prime Minister was saying was going to have on businesses in March.

“The Government obviously has a massive job in rebuilding the economy and supporting businesses who have faced such a challenging year will be very important.

“But this report today makes clear how vital it is that those in charge of Government policy show awareness of the impact the last 12 months has had on the mental health of those running businesses. For many it will be a long road back.”

Founder of Healingclouds, Asim Amin, added: “After the COVID-19 pandemic escalated in February, we saw a rise in the number of people seeking help for their mental wellbeing. The rising number of people reaching out for help due to stress brought on by the pandemic is staggering. It is important we are having this conversation and that the Government also addresses what is an increasing problem.”

The increase comes as new figures show up to 250,000 companies are predicted to collapse as we approach a year from going into national lockdown.

A previous poll of 2,000 SMEs saw a third of owners admit COVID-19 had negatively affected their mental health. And two-in-five said the impact had even left them questioning whether they want to continue running their own business in the future.

It is now estimated absenteeism from work due to mental health reasons increased last year by £1.3bn from 2019’s totals as work from home, travel restrictions, furlough and pay cuts changed the workplace for millions of people across the UK.

Case studies

Startup Founder, Jess Heagren, 38, the Founder of That Works For Me, said: “People keep on asking me what it was like starting a business in a global pandemic. On the one hand, I haven’t known anything different. On the other, it’s been so hard. All of my plans for things that ‘could go wrong’ have gone wrong. And I’ve often found myself staring into the bottom of a gin glass after a day’s home-school combined with answering customer queries wondering if it’s supposed to be this hard.

“I understand pressure. But nobody could have predicted how this year has gone. Every time we got going, another lockdown came. Work and life continue to have zero degrees of separation.

“I have my laptop next to me while I’m home-schooling. This constant friction affects my mood. And like everyone, I have good days and bad days. On the bad days, I have had to find new coping mechanisms. Previously I could run, walk, meet a friend for coffee, whatever it was I wanted to do. The point was that I had time on my own to deal with things.

“I find that the more time I spend at home with my family the less inclined I am to leave. I stop speaking to the outside world and isolate myself. Every so often someone will penetrate my self-made fortress and I’ll remember that I’m actually quite a social being, and I enjoy interacting with other people.

“There are other things I do to try not to slip into a rut. I run when I can. I try and do a Pilates class or two a week. They make me feel better.

“My resilience has taken a real hit over the last year. But, moving forward, things are looking promising. I can see a light at the end of the tunnel and am dreaming of the things we will do when things return to ‘normal’.”

Toby Harper, 35, the CEO of Harper James Solicitor said: “I don’t think anybody, initially, realised the impact of what the Prime Minister was saying was going to have on businesses in March. It wasn’t until the following day, and the days after, that it started to become clear. Email after email started to land in my inbox from clients asking to put work on hold. Others, who we had hoped to start new business with, were saying they needed to press pause. A major deal I’d been working on the weekend before fell over immediately. New business leads and enquiries basically stopped coming in. There’s no doubt I felt a sense of panic. I barely slept in those early days. I felt two main emotions.

“Fear and an overwhelming sense of sadness. Sadness that all the hard work and all the success we’d had was at risk. And sadness for all the other businesses, particularly those we were working with, who were suddenly facing such a tough time.”

“The pandemic has made it harder to separate family life from work life. And running a business, particularly as a sole-founder, can be a very lonely place. That’s why I think it is important to have people around you who you can share any concerns you might have with. When you do, you often see you are not the only one going through it.

“The Government obviously has a massive job in rebuilding the economy and supporting businesses who have faced such a challenging year will be very important. But it’s vital too that those in charge of Government policy show awareness of the impact the last 12 months has had on the mental health of those running businesses. For many it will be a long road back.”

Rob Kniaz, 41, one of the UK’s most prominent technology investors who has backed giants including Deliveroo and Babylon, said: “It’s drained me being locked inside most days. My work is entirely Zoom-based so it's efficient to the point of being exhausting. I miss the down-time I used to have in my commute to take a breath. Now it's straight to calls in the morning and straight to kids’ bedtime at night,” he said.

“The hardest thing has been the challenge of actually getting to know founders. We've had many more 'social' type calls to get to know each other better but it doesn't replace a nice meal.”

“I try to take regular walks where possible,” he said. “Taking calls while walking or at least blocking out part of the day is essential to have some fresh air and time to think.

“It's harder for parents, especially in London, when schools are shut. Interestingly, in the US, the impact seems to be a bit less negative - parents have more space often to dedicate to a home office and schools are open in some locations. Plus people can pop in their car and go more places whereas here there's no place to drive that's even warm.”

“Is this issue discussed enough? Probably not,” he said. “Being a founder is mentally exhausting all of the time and you only see the success stories and not the other 95% of cases that end poorly for founders. It's an excruciating job full of highs and lows and being isolated makes getting through the lows even harder because you can't see friends in similar scenarios and share their journeys.

“My advice to those struggling is find friends and schedule regular time to just catch up even without an agenda,” he said. “Share the trials and tribulations; it's nice to hear others are going through the same problems themselves. For founders, all they can do is keep the business going and hope the economy rebounds.”

Leah Totton, 33, the former winner of The Apprentice and now a business partner of Lord Alan Sugar said: “It has been very hard. I know this from speaking to a lot of my employees. Some of them are young girls, who are in their early twenties. They’ve never experienced anything like the uncertainty or the fear this pandemic has created. It is almost incomprehensible the amount of turmoil this has caused for many people.

“Lockdown has made things so hard. Many employees have been at home for months, then they are back in, often in a completely different work environment. Some may be deskilled because they haven’t been working at all for those months. It has been really challenging and I really sympathise with workers who’ve been through that.”

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you work, everyone needs to take time out to look after their mental health. As a society we need to be mindful that long after this virus has gone many people may still be struggling to cope with the impact it has had. They must be given proper care and support.

Barry Searle, 37, the Managing Director of Intqual Pro, which has run a series of COVID specific wellbeing webinars during the pandemic, said: “Stress and anxiety are definitely far higher than we've ever seen as a training provider. Attendance was two or three times higher in the most recent set of webinars than it was back in April and May last year.

“Not enough is being said or written about the mental health impact this pandemic is having on businesses. I almost feel there is a deliberate attempt to block out what I see as a mental health pandemic as it does not chime with the core COVID message regarding isolation.

“We need an urgent study to understand the extent and long term impact to the population. Access to mental health support in the UK was already way underfunded and barely available. I don’t feel that the government understands or wants to prioritise the potential drastic increase in demand.

“And charities that have been providing invaluable support will not have the increased capacity as donations and support seems to have reduced through the pandemic.”

“As the country looks to rebuild economically, addressing mental health will be the key issue.  We now have a split between people that have become accustomed to isolation and remote working and a lack of social interaction.  Many may not want to go back to 'before'. While others will be desperate and dependent upon a return to 'normal'.

“How these two groups of people interact and fit, and what that means for corporate culture, are key questions all businesses need to think about.”

Alastair MacGregor, 44, the Chief Operating Officer of an organisation which helps people to connect and support their communities, said:  “Mental health and wellbeing are often tossed around as buzzwords without any really in-depth exploration of what it means and the social cost of it,”

“I fear we are really approaching a cliff-edge moment in this area. Everyone’s mental health is important, but small business managers are particularly impacted among those in the private sector, and if they fold (mentally and financially), then the impacts for society are much greater. It’s in the national interest for them to be supported and that’s why much more analysis is needed.

"When it comes to mental health, most of all I feel for young people, and I see a generational mental health time bomb unless the socio-economic fallout for young people is dealt with effectively and immediately. If you’re not already doing it, my advice to others would be to use the crisis to embark on a journey of self observation. It’s always needed and the crisis has just highlighted the need for it. The benefits will then be felt over the rest of your life, and in all aspects of it.”

Becca Clayton, 48, who runs Tonic Wellbeing, which provides stress management training to individuals, teams and large organisations, said: “I have definitely noticed a rise in stress, anxiety and mental ill health within the business community,”

“First and foremost I would say it is the blurring of boundaries between our home and work lives. The trouble is that some people are thriving. The demands placed upon us are greater than ever, we have little control of Boris’s roadmap to recovery and it is a time of uncertainty and much change. These are all drivers for stress.

“It is a very challenging time for those individuals who do not have the tools to deal with these pressures. I feel there are plenty of providers and services now available in the workplace,” 

“But businesses need to practice what they preach and give permission to staff to prioritise wellbeing. It is not just about a stand-alone one off event, it is part of the day to day activities. It needs to be firmly on the agenda. The time for lip service is truly over."

Startup Details

Startup Details


Harper James

Harper James is a full-service national commercial law firm with offices in London, Sheffield, Birmingham, and Cambridge.

Their solicitors provide expert corporate legal advice for businesses in the UK. Harper James provides expert business legal services from partner level lawyers, but at affordable prices for startups, SMEs and other businesses. The majority of their lawyers have previously worked for a top 100 UK law firm or in-house at large international businesses.

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